Dah-Day-We Warrior (center) and her five children at the Tulsa Women’s and Children’s Center, a rehab center in Tulsa, Okla., for pregnant or parenting women. Cassidy McDonald is the 2016 win-a-trip winner. This month she traveled with Nicholas Kristof through Arkansas and Oklahoma to report on domestic poverty.
Too often, we talk about Native American oppression in the past tense. The Trail of Tears, genocide and forced adoption are part of our history, but inequality is still present today, made clear when examining how drug addiction plays out in Native American communities.
In Tulsa, Okla., I met a woman named Dah-Day-We Warrior, a Ponca Native American who grew up in White Eagle, a nearby town. At 23, Warrior has five children and is on her second round of rehab for a methamphetamine addiction. When she left rehab for the first time last year, she said she moved home — and immediately relapsed.
“Drugs were around me every day,” Warrior said, adding that family members have also dealt with meth addictions. “My mom was my main supporter, but also the one I relapsed with,” Warrior said.
Nationally, Native Americans have the highest rates of meth use of any ethnic group, according to the Department of Justice. In Warrior’s town, meth is a major problem.
Former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee in the U.S. Senate and founder of the ]Center for Native American Youth, discovered the horrific reality of the Native American drug problem over the course of his career. “The meth use is devastatingly addictive and very often meth is produced in very rural areas, abandoned places,” he said.
American Indian communities face many of the same risks as other rural areas but have the added burden of historical trauma, including relocation, forced separation of families and compulsory cultural assimilation.
“Does that have some impact on the population? Of course it does. Damn right it does,” Senator Dorgan said. “There is more vulnerability in a Native community because of all the other issues.”
Warrior will graduate in November from her 90-day rehab program at the Tulsa Women and Children’s Center, which provides substance abuse treatment for pregnant or parenting women. She believes she’ll be able to stay clean — as long as she doesn’t go home to White Eagle. “I can go back, I just don’t think I am strong enough,” she said.
Drugs haven’t always been pervasive in Native culture. Jake Roberts, director of behavioral health, substance abuse and suicide prevention for the Ponca tribe, said the tribe’s prevention services focus on returning kids to the traditional Ponca culture. “It provides the young ones with a sense of identity,” he said.
But funding is scarce. So instead of a return to traditional culture, young people like Warrior want out — for themselves, and for their children.
Warrior believes White Eagle’s drug problem stems from a lack of opportunity. “’Cause it’s a little town,” she said. “Nobody can get a job because almost everybody is a felon.”
Research suggests Warrior is right — unemployment may lead to increased substance abuse.
For Warrior, drugs began as a career. At 14, she became unexpectedly pregnant, so she dropped out of school and started dealing drugs to make money. She began with cocaine and marijuana, and eventually moved to meth. It wasn’t until she was 16, in a moment of despair, that she began using the drugs she sold. She’d just become friends with her biological father, whom she’d never known. She had a turbulent childhood, and had pinned her hopes on him. But then, he committed suicide.
“Why, God?” she remembers thinking. “I’m just getting to know my dad.”
In anguish, she soothed herself with what she had laying around the house. Her addiction spiraled. A year later, Indian Child Welfare took away her oldest two children. She smoked so much meth on her 18th birthday that she went to the hospital, where doctors found a kidney infection. In 2012, her grandmother — her main caregiver and only sober supporter — died at age 57. Warrior was crushed, and descended further: she started shooting up with needles.
Warrior was briefly jailed for felony drug possession charge, but is now in rehab with all five of her children. The Tulsa Women’s and Children’s Center aims to keep families intact. There Warrior goes through drug treatment and learns parenting skills; her kids receive counseling.
The day before I visited, the family had therapy and the kids “drew their feelings.” Warrior’s oldest daughter, age eight, drew a picture of boys at school pushing her down and making fun of her. Warrior immediately understood what her daughter was trying to tell her. She held her and didn’t let go.
Warrior said that if she were still on meth, she wouldn’t have done that. “I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t found this place,” she said.
“I’m just trying to prove to them that I’m still here. I’m back, and I’m ready to be there for them.”
By Cassidy McDonald - The NY Times/Oct. 28, 2016
Photo: Andrea Morales, nytimes
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Drugs' Availability, Addiction Still Challenging Native American Indian Families